So what always happened in the great romance movies of my time? I would have been able to offer a more thorough list if asked, because that unreality was what I used constantly, like a barometer to see “how I was doing” compared to “how I should be doing.” I think a lot of young girls do this, too, but in my case, it was more…deliberate and in the forefront of my experience. Most young women rely on their intuition when it comes to things like judging a person’s character or intentions, for example. Even if you’re bad at it, you have intuition. But in my case, I remember feeling like that part of me was completely absent, and l really needed something else to function as a measuring stick to give me signals about a situation.
All this to say, basically, that our first little date went precisely as I’d imagined it should.
We met up at the campus coffee shop just inside the campus library next to the English building where I spent the majority of my time as an undergrad. I loved the feeling of walking around campus with books everywhere. There was a feeling of inevitably bright futures and ambitious plans, young people getting ready to educate themselves and then change the world. I loved getting up to the fourth floor of the English building right before class and sitting outside the classroom waiting for the last class to end. They had these sitting areas set up right against the glass and I could sit there and look out over almost the entire campus. The Student Union way up beyond a neatly manicured lawn, with walkways and students speed-walking to and from classes. I always felt this nervous excitement, a mixture of anticipation and eagerness to learn something, have my mind opened, make a discovery, find a new obsession.
By the time I met Allen in my last year of college, I’d fixated mostly on musical figures and not so much on academics. I’d managed to get by with decent grades, but once the dream of being a dancer was dashed by a cold glass of reality (more on that in Chameleon), I remember not having a clue what I was supposed to do or study. I ended up in English just because I viewed it as a pretty loose liberal arts major that I could utilize for a wide variety of careers. By the time I was ready to graduate, my plan was to find work as an editor in some capacity. My dream would have been to move to a big city and work as an editorial assistant at a big publishing house, maybe working up to becoming a literary agent. The idea of finding and supporting new and talented writers was an exciting thought. Of course, the image in my head of what this would be like reflected the happy-go-lucky images I’d seen in movies and TV…nice business suit and heels, walking miles to a big office full of happy, smiling people and a comfortable workload that I could engage with without having to really talk to anybody, except my clients. Perhaps that’s what it’s like at the finish line, but I certainly had no idea what it might take to get there…nor did I ever find out. Because suddenly, my life began to revolve around a person instead of a career.
I arrived at the coffee shop and ordered my favorite drink, something with chai in it probably, then sat down. I was habitually early to just about everything, as this was always easier on my nerves. I looked around at the dozen or so students sitting around with their own coffees, their noses in a book. Outside were a couple of round tables underneath umbrellas. I watched the door to exit the building as well as the entrance to the coffee shop from the library, doing that dance of looking constantly while trying not look like you’re looking constantly. I was nervous as hell, of course. At some point before, we’d exchanged numbers and I texted him to let him know I was there about ten minutes early. I waited…no response. Maybe he forgot? Maybe he’d decided he didn’t want to come? I waited some more.
Finally, Allen walked into the coffee shop, having walked through the library. I quickly averted my eyes. For some reason I didn’t want him to see me looking at him…I wanted him to see me first and come over. I was terrified of being the first to greet someone I was meeting. It felt so scary, no matter what situation I was in. So, I looked down at my phone and waited for him to come over. Before looking around at all, however, he went up to the counter, ordered a coffee, then went straight outside to one of the round tables. Well fuck, I guess I have to go outside…or should I wait for him to text? What would the chick in the movie do…
I grabbed my stuff and walked outside, half-drunk coffee in hand. Initiative is sexy, I decided.
I said hey and sat down. I remember him looking so serious, no big smile or getting up for a hug or anything like that (thank goodness). I sat down. He looked like he’d already been in deep thought before arriving and within a moment or two, started in on a conversation…like, a real conversation, completely skipping the pleasantries I thought were compulsory in situations like this. I immediately felt at ease.
The main topic for today? Anarchy, apparently. Allen spoke about how he enjoyed observing people and how he felt that there would never be great change in human society unless some catastrophic event happened to change their minds. If people were left to form into small communities and live the lives they wanted to live, how would the world look, and would we all be better off?
I don’t remember many of the details of the conversation. What I do remember is feeling like I didn’t have to mask so much like I usually did with new people, especially men. I had trained myself to snap into certain social positions based on who I was talking to and what I believed was expected of me. As a young woman, talking to a young man meant that I was demure and charming. I usually deferred to the men around me. I’d watched young women turn into blithering idiots as a way to be alluring to men…did men really feel more attracted to dumber or ditzy women? Was it because men needed to feel like the alpha and in control or something? I hadn’t reflected a whole lot on the whys and hows of these realities that had come to form the paradigm of society in my mind; I was just trying to survive and fit in as much as possible. I had also just gotten away from a relationship that had served as another one of those cold slaps in the face, so I was very much primed to do my best and do better in this role set before me in the dating game. I was ready to reflect the women that seemed more successful when it came to men. The attractive, kinda ditzy, smiley girls that were always surrounded. I’d obviously not learned much since high school about what it meant to be in a successful relationship where there wasn’t that dynamic of man in control and woman in subservience, simply existing as a sexual trophy.
This first long conversation with Allen, though…those behaviors that had been primed and ready for success gradually fell completely off and I was left with…myself. I could speak my mind as best I could and instead of immediately dismissing something I said or groveling just to try to win my affection, I was met with honest and attentive answers and disagreements, with an openness for conversation on equal footing. In my last relationship—one I mistakenly thought was romantic—my first encounter with the guy had been met with a very obvious and unashamed checking my body out, literally from head to toe right in the middle of a classroom after class had ended. I felt like a cow being assessed before purchase or something. What I was experiencing now was so different, and I was very ready to see where this encounter was going to lead.
For that reason, I was pleased when, not even a few hours later, I began receiving fairly regular texts from Allen asking when we would hang out again. What happened next is a story that we continue to review and chuckle over.
At some point the next day, after having received dozens of messages in one form or another, I texted him back, saying, “You’re being a little obsessive.”
I’m pretty sure when I sent the text, I was just trying to be cute and funny, but I was genuinely alarmed when I received no response from Allen. I waited a few minutes…then an hour passed without anything. Then a few hours. It was late in the evening when I decided I’d better do something, so I texted him those fateful three words: “I miss you.”
So, from his end, I learned much later that he had been at work during this time. When he received that text about being obsessive, he decided there was only one plan of action to take here. He would immediately stop texting and if I really wanted to keep seeing him, I would eventually be the one to revive the communications. He had taken that text very seriously and didn’t want to mess anything up. He said when he received my text saying I missed him, he let out a little whoop in celebration at work as he quickly texted a response. We began seeing each other quite regularly after that, and I was very happy I’d decided not to play that cliché hard-to-get spiel. Those games were meant for people who only wanted to keep everything a game. This was turning into much more.
Visual memories are more vivid than memories of our particular conversations. His black trench coat he always wore, fingerless gloves, Marlboro cigarettes. I had one or two people on campus that I consistently hung out with during the day (most of my friends were nighttime/party friends), but Allen seemed to constantly see someone he knew. He’d get a wave, or he’d go over and greet them, ask them how they were doing, etc. I do remember that our conversations were rarely about our personal lives; they were oriented more toward “big” questions and the things we were studying, the stuff we agreed with, the stuff we thought was stupid. He could create a great narrative that took an hour to tell about one class or person he’d had an interesting interaction with. He had respect for a couple of professors, and I remember feeling a little envious at his easy ability to befriend and talk casually to them. I had a hard enough time talking to people with whom I felt on an equal footing, let alone individuals who held authority and status. It was impossible for me to get past the “roles” in place in order to form any kind of relationship with a professor beyond that of a teacher and student.
When the coffee shop and other campus locations got boring, we started to migrate and hang out in different, strange spots. Like the woods surrounding campus, or the furthest parking lot from campus out by the shuttle, “Lot 20.” Occasionally, he’d mention old girlfriends or relationships, but mostly our conversations revolved around us and the world at large. You know, that initial dance between two people where everything else fades away and there is nothing but the two of you. I was familiar with this stage because it’s Hollywood’s favorite romance thread to exploit—young lovers about to conquer the world.
After maybe a month or two, Allen felt comfortable asking me to come to his house. I learned that he was currently living with two friends, and that he spent most of his time in a self-fashioned bachelor pad in the garage. Strange…but then a lot of what Allen offered was strange and different; that’s what attracted me to him. That and his confidence. He seemed to simply know what he wanted out of life. So simple and yet so rare, especially for a poor college student.
I agreed, and before me was the daunting task of traveling to his home about 15 minutes away from campus. I kept asking if his friends would be home when I arrived. On that first occasion, he relayed that, no, it would just be us. I was relieved. I was anxious enough just driving to a strange place and seeing where Allen lived. I didn’t need to also worry about meeting his roommates. My interest was in Allen, not anyone else.
It occurred to me some time later that a neurotypical individual would probably have been happy and excited to meet such roommates, but just the idea was absolutely terrifying to me. I knew from the snippets of conversation that revolved around them that he was very close to them and had been for a while. Wouldn’t it be some sort of social test to see what they thought of me? Would it factor in to how Allen felt about me? At this time, we were still very new to each other, and though the confidence of being familiar with this “role” of courtship kept me afloat, I knew that eventually it would wane and we would be left with only ourselves. I still had no idea how that was going to work out, but I was also not worrying about it too much. Just surviving the day-to-day anxiety was keeping me quite occupied.
I arrived early, of course, and was relieved quite a bit by the fact that the garage door was wide open, and that there were no other cars around except for his. I parked on the street and approached him with a funny look on my face. This was definitely…unusual.
Just inside the garage were the ugliest two pieces of furniture I had ever seen—a big yellow chair with stiff arms and a green couch. Across from the couch was a television and a few gaming consoles hooked up to it. A milk crate served as the centerpiece of the ensemble, topped with a very full ash tray. The smoke wafted out from the space, and I was suddenly mortified to think of what it was like in there when the garage door was closed.
“Hey,” I said in greeting.
“Welcome.” His wide smile, lips holding on miraculously to a half-smoked cigarette, swept away much of the anxiety I’d felt about arriving.
We spent a couple of hours talking, as per our usual, then Allen offered a gesture which would mark a huge progression in our relationship.
I was sitting on the arm of the ugliest couch in the world, facing him. Without a word, he stood up from where he was sitting and walked around behind me, holding my gaze as long as he could. Then, he bent down and placed his arms around me, under mine, clasped his hands, and began kissing my neck. Confidence indeed. And I felt perfectly fine with it. Perhaps partially because it felt very movie-like and romantic. Quite a cinematic moment altogether, and that was something he did regularly. These little dramatic moments with no words and lots of unspoken suggestion. I loved it, and I was ready to go where he wanted to take me.